From August 2015
By Madison Lands
Photos by Beth Rooney
Arguably the most memorable and exciting group on the UChicago campus this summer is the Digital Media Academy, purely by virtue of the fact that they are campers, varying from three to 17 years old, learning computer programming. Yesy Garcia, an intern with the Summer Conferences Team in Residential Services, affectionately refers to them as her baby geniuses.
Digital Media Academy (DMA) campers take different, week-long courses, from code writing for Minecraft to electronic DJing and digital filmmaking. They are instructed by industry professionals, tech educators, and artists. They’re recognizable by their matching, brightly colored t-shirts, UCID lanyards around their necks, and wide eyes. The camp is so well-loved that the majority of counselors are alums of the program themselves.
Of course, a conference for children requires UChicago staff to make adjustments.
“When DMA is here, our entire food program changes. We have to order more chicken nuggets, and of course - more ice cream!” Ashley Clement, the Assistant Director of Summer Conferences, says. “It’s refreshing to have the kids here.”
Each June, as UChicago undergraduates leave campus for the summer, many forget that the ivy covered campus continues to exist. However, it lives on, bustling with the summer conference crowd, a group distinct from the normal UChicago crowd of inquisitive students and distinguished academics.
Summer conferences happen on university campuses around the country. Many college host their own sports camps or summer college for high school students, and independent groups host on-campus, thematic conferences, such as the National Youth Leadership Forums or the Ambassadors Program. Conferences provide universities a way to keep their campuses alive during the summer break, and they provide participants the chance to experience life on a college campus.
Three thousand and five hundred conference participants will spend time on the UChicago campus this summer. At any given time, approximately 1,400 participants are living on campus. They sleep in the residence halls and eat in Cathey Dining Commons. They file in and out of classrooms, listening to lectures and participating in workshops. They go to Ratner and hang out in Reynold’s Club. In true UChicago fashion, many spend time in the Reg, as conference goers quickly learn to call the Joseph Regenstein Library. The main difference between the summer conference crowd and the usual UChicago students is their age range: from the three-year-old in DMA to the seasoned academics in the Graham School Summer Session, the shift in demographic means a shift in campus atmosphere.
While Clement books conferences that will thrive on this campus and in UChicago culture, she feels a change during the summer, which she ascribes to participants’ excitement about being on campus. The conference goers are noisy and boisterous when they’re entering classrooms, much like UChicago students during their first quarter of classes. Everything about campus is new. The visitors are just discovering the Gothic architecture and ivy covered halls, full of awe and more amped up, as Garcia describes it.
The UChicago summer conferences program is unique in the type of groups it attracts. Clement almost exclusively books academic conferences. Some conferences are internal—both the linguistics and physics departments host conferences—but many are groups external to the university, meaning student groups like the Summer Institute for the Gifted, the National Youth Leadership Forum: Careers in Medicine, or the Knowledge is Power Program, for example.
“They’re here because they want to learn,” Clement says of the high school students in the programs. “They’re excited to be on campus and they’re doing their best to be well-behaved because they love this environment.”
The UChicago Summer Conference Program has seen remarkable success in the past three years: The number of participants has increased by twenty-five percent and the number of nights that conference guests have slept on campus has nearly tripled. Residential Services primarily attracts new groups through the Summer Conferences website. The reputation Clement has helped build has been enough to attract most of those new conferences.
These results are partly due to Clement’s work to implement conference models that are proven successes. She achieved the One-Stop Shop certification, started giving all participants UCIDs, and implemented the StarRez booking system for conferences. These changes have simplified the planning process. Instead of representatives from the conference reaching out to each department of the University, they speak only with Clement, who then coordinates with the university departments, making the process manageable for the conference planners. These processes and standards are important because they place UChicago amongst conference programs at other elite universities.
Another major contributor to that success is the summer conference team. They are hardworking and dedicated to meeting the needs of conference participants. Garcia keeps a huge binder of reference information to handle all circumstances to ensure her conferences run smoothly. Everything is prepared in advance, from checking that each key card works to ensuring linen delivery and delivering extensive security presentations alongside the UCPD. By taking these precautions, the team ensures that a participant has the best experience that UChicago can offer. She and her co-interns are always prepared to handle the little emergencies that pop up, such as when the tornado sirens began blaring as Garcia was checking in 400 participants.
“I channeled my inner flight attendant,” Garcia said, describing how she brought everyone down to the very full basement of Max Palevsky West, and went on with her normal welcome presentation. “That’s not ideal for check in, but people were still laughing and having a good time.”